While Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider so far has focused its narrative and even its title on only one Scarlet Spider, the series has been about two Scarlet Spiders. While the Scarlet Spider title originated with Ben Reilly in the 90s clone saga, it is now arguably Kaine, who carried the title through 26 issues of his own solo series, whom readers now associate more strongly with the name. In this issue, both Scarlet Spiders finally share the same stage, setting up a major battle in the next issue. Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider #4 drives the series forward with high action, building up the conflict as the opening arc of the series ratchets up.
Once again, the art team of Mark Bagley, John Dell, Andrew Hennessy, and Jason Keith provides vibrant, dynamic art for Peter David’s script. There seems to be one lettering mistake on the last page, where a line that makes more sense for Ben to say comes from Kaine instead. Outside of that, the art excels in its action and storytelling. As the pieces fall into place for issue six’s battle of Scarlet Spiders, a lot of pieces slide into place, specifically its primary players. The art team keeps the action moving along.
Ben Reilly’s primary motivation so far in his book has been the preservation of his own life. To state the obvious, so far he has succeeded. Yet, so far it has been neither his spider powers nor his scientific prowess that has saved him; it has been his capacity as a confidence man. It is an interesting skill set that has never been a part of the original Spider-Man’s repartee. Instead, his hustling plays like an evolution of one of Peter Parker’s most important gifts: his ingenuity, his ability to think on his feet and adapt. That ability, as much as his immense strength and spider-sense, has kept Parker alive.
With Kaine, he finally meets someone who rejects all of Ben’s attempts to work him over. They have a brief exchange before it abruptly devolves into physical conflict, presumably prompted by Kaine’s completely relatable hatred of PowerPoint presentations. It’s one of a few signs that Reilly’s plan is beginning to unravel. Other parts seem to have worked: at least whatever Ben was trying to do with Aunt June seems to be paying off, judging by the gratitude she mistakenly offered to Kaine. Kaine’s resemblance to Ben allows him to enter into the casino and discover firsthand what his clone brother has been up to.
Although this issue ends with a confrontation four issues in the making, the series has done little to make the reader invested in these two. It is a fight that is all hat and no cattle, as it were – it presents the action as if it has weight, but is light when it comes to substance. I have no reason to root for Ben over Kaine other than the fact that it is his name on the front of the comic, not Kaine’s. I wonder if it was a mistake on the part of the storytellers to keep Ben and Kaine separated so much, if it would have been better to build drama between them incrementally while building towards a full on fight. Instead, the story has presumed that the audience understands the rift between Kaine and Ben, the latter of whom was dead in the comics for twenty years until last year’s “Dead No More”.
Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider #4 keeps the action coming from the first page to the last. In the end, however, it is all payoff that we will not see until next issue. Though, it is tough to complain when the last three issues spent so much time revisiting the same plot beats. The series has, for the most part, overcome its bizarre start to become a more coherent book. Still, I can’t help but feel that it could have done more work to make me buy into the plight of Ben Reilly for the conflict with Kaine to work. I understand that Kaine is suspicious of Ben’s work, since the last time he saw Ben, he had assumed the mantle of the Jackal and was at the center of the clone conspiracy. It appears that Ben has returned to peddling hope to someone for his own gain. Yet, for Ben’s part, we now enter the part where a little bit of sympathy for the book’s protagonist would go a long way in helping care to see him escape the mess he’s made for himself. Until we get a better handle on Ben, it will be difficult to become invested in either his escape from trouble or his redemption.
Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider #4 propels the series forward towards the conflict between the Spiders. However, now that the story needs the drama heightened, the series' inability to make its protagonist either sympathetic or understandable undercuts its efforts.